By: Ryan Croke
I, along with millions of others, woke up on August 29 to a major shock. Kanye West had finally released his long-awaited 10th solo album Donda. The 27 track project features collaborations from all sorts of artists, and is Kanye’s longest album to date, with a runtime of 1 hour and 48 minutes. After 3 separate listening parties for Donda were held in massive stadiums and the album still wasn’t released, people were beginning to lose hope that it would ever be formally released. The hype surrounding this album is massive, and it shows. The album had the biggest release day of any record released on Spotify in the platform’s history, behind only Taylor Swift’s 2020 record folklore and Drake’s Scorpion and new record Certified Lover Boy which came out less than a week after Donda. Donda racked up close to 100 million streams within 24 hours of release. Fans had been craving this album for over a year, as West tweeted on July 21, 2020, that Donda would be released three days later. The album never came out, much to the dismay of fans, and they thought the album was another project from the artist that was scrapped and would never be released. Over a year later, these fans were proven wrong. Was Donda worth the wait? Or did it fail to live up to the hype? I’ll dive into my thoughts on the project right after I detail what a tumultuous ride this album rollout has been for Kanye fans like myself.
Private Listening Party and the First Public Listening Event
Donda was originally planned to drop on July 24, 2020, but never did, and for almost a year, fans believed that West had failed to finish the album, or that he scrapped it all together like he did several times in years past. However, in mid-July of this year, rumors surfaced that Kanye was holding a private listening party in Las Vegas for his new album, Donda. This was big news for Kanye fans, and the whole world was talking about possible release dates. Kanye said not one word to the public. Later that week, several sources close to Kanye confirm that Donda will be released on Friday, July 23, 2021, and a public listening party will be held in and live-streamed from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta the night before. That night, over 2 million people tuned into the event, smashing the previous Apple Music live stream viewership record. Fan reception was overwhelmingly positive, and everyone who tuned in or attended the event was raving about the neo-gospel-themed album. There were several surprise features, but the standout moment of the night came when a Jay Z verse kicked in on the final track of the night. Jay and Kanye had famously had disagreements in the past, and it surprised many that the two had clearly made amends. The excitement was higher than ever. Then the next day came. No album. Fans bargained, created false hope for themselves, did everything they could to convince themselves that Donda would be released, all to no avail. It was a repeat of a bad memory. Disappointment set in yet again as Kanye had announced yet another album and had failed to deliver. Only this time, he rubbed salt on the wound by playing the album for millions of people before not releasing it. Fans were outraged, and rightfully so. Until the following week.
Listening Party 2
Kanye posted to Instagram the next week that a second listening party would be held exactly 2 weeks after the first, on August 5, also in Mercedes-Benz stadium, and the album would be released the next day. Hype for the project built up yet again, and fans wondered what Kanye could do with 2 more weeks to work on the unfinished album. When the second listening event rolled around, it became apparent that a lot had changed in the last 2 weeks. The album featured more surprise features, with the main surprise of the night being Kid Cudi, who was featured on multiple tracks after fans were disappointed that Kanye’s longtime friend wasn’t on the album two weeks before. The second event blew the first out of the water, statistically and in quality, as the live stream viewership record set by the first event was smashed, as the second live stream saw over 5 million viewers. This time around, Kanye created a cinematic show that corresponded to the music, and the conclusion of the event saw a masked Kanye ascend into the heavens through the open roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium basked in white light in what will one day be an iconic shot. Fans were ultimately glad that Kanye had taken more time to seemingly perfect his work, and were eagerly awaiting the album’s release at midnight the same night. Of course, they were disappointed yet again, as the album wasn’t released the next day. Fans were once again heartbroken and wondered what could possibly be holding back the project’s release. Another two weeks passed with nothing from Kanye. He hadn’t said a single word throughout the entire rollout so far, hadn’t even captioned his cryptic Instagram posts, and fans thought the album had no hopes of coming out.
Listening Party 3
Once more, Kanye posted a listening party date, this time August 26, at Soldier Field in West’s hometown of Chicago. This one seemed fitting. An album named after West’s late mother Donda West would be played for the public one last time in Kanye’s hometown. This event was another cinematic show, with several cool shots of West cloaked in fire, standing outside a recreation of his childhood home, before finally removing the mask at the end of the show. This event received mixed reviews, as fans were enraged with some of the choices made over the last three weeks. Kid Cudi was replaced by a sample of the viral Globglogabgalab video, Jay Z was replaced by Da Baby, and numerous other changes had been made. It seemed that Kanye had spent almost too much time on the album, and should have quit while he was ahead. Regardless, fans were not really surprised when the album wasn’t released the next day and had almost put the nail in the coffin for their hopes of Donda being released.
Two Days Later
Two days later, Sunday, August 29, millions of fans across the globe received news that Donda had been released at 8 am ET and was available on streaming platforms for fans to enjoy. The album received outpouring praise from fans, and all people could talk about on social media was Donda. After a year’s wait, Kanye had finally released his 10th solo album. Kanye’s fans were finally rewarded for their patience, and thanked West by helping the album break several records on streaming platforms. The world was finally given a new Kanye West album, and for most people, it was worth the painful wait.
The best way to describe Donda is all over the place, as the album really has no sense of direction. The only thing consistent throughout is themes of spirituality throughout the lyrics, as Kanye and most of the featured artists are rapping about God and Jesus throughout the entire project. Kanye brings an insane amount of collaborators to the table to create this sense of family and forgiveness that is also constant throughout. Listening to Donda is certainly an experience unlike any other, and I’ll give my thoughts on the album right now.
Low Points / Critiques
The majority of Donda is great, and some of Kanye’s best work to date. However, on a 27 track album, there are bound to be some songs that just don’t meet the standards set by the other tracks. First, let’s start with the songs that have a part 2. The final four tracks of the album are altered versions of other tracks from Donda, and all of them are very lackluster compared to the other versions. All these “part 2” tracks have that separates them from the other version of the song are new features, most of which are mediocre or painful to listen to, especially when most of these new features end up replacing a vastly superior guest appearance. At least Kanye didn’t make these part 2 tracks the official version of the song because that would have been a nightmare.
One other disappointing track from this album is Tell The Vision, which is just 90 seconds of Pop Smoke repeating “we made it,” and it makes no sense to me why this was included. It could be a tribute to the late drill artist or signify that Kanye has made it to heaven, but both of those are significant stretches. Either way, it’s pretty boring and unnecessary and serves no purpose that I can find.
If you remove the part 2 tracks and Tell The Vision, the album is still 22 tracks long, and there are a good amount of these that are boring, unnecessary, and don’t add anything to the tracklist.
God Breathed is an interesting track at first, but it has no business being over 5 minutes long. The production is solid, but Kanye’s performance is underwhelming, and so is Vory’s, although both of them will make up for it on later tracks. Cut this song down to a runtime of 2 and a half minutes, and it’s a solid track.
Jonah has a great feature from Vory on the chorus, but Lil Durk is insufferable as always, and Kanye once again has very weak bars that don’t feel like a lot of effort was spent in writing.
Ok Ok is solid, with a great appearance from Lil Yachty, but the instrumental is boring, Kanye’s performance is lackluster, and Rooga’s verse on the back end is incredibly weak.
Junya is probably my least favorite song on the entire album not counting the part 2 tracks, and for good reason. The organ instrumental is cool at first but overstays its welcome early on into the 2 and a half minute track. Kanye and Playboi Carti’s verses are repetitive, boring, and the line from Kanye that goes, “I won with the bucks, boy, let me Giannis”, is one of his cringiest lines to date.
Remote Control isn’t horrible, but it isn’t anything special, as Kanye and Young Thug don’t do anything to ruin the song or to make it a classic. The track becomes infuriating in the last 10 seconds, however, as fans who tuned into the 2nd listening party found out that Kid Cudi’s guest appearance was replaced by a sample of the Globglogabgalab video. The sample is a painful reminder of this track’s wasted potential.
The rest of the songs I’m not particularly impressed with I am more indifferent to. These include Heaven and Hell, Keep My Spirit Alive, and New Again. There isn’t anything I hate about these songs, but nothing I love either. They feel like filler to me, and the album wouldn’t be any worse if these were cut from the tracklist.
That does it for my problems with individual tracks, but there are some overarching problems that are present throughout the entire record that I will dive into. First, and most glaringly, there is a lack of direction. For an album named after his late mother who meant so much to him, the fact that there is little to no focus on her at all is confusing to me. On top of that, while a good amount of the songs have a clear gospel inspiration, there are several that sound like they belong on a different Kanye album or even on an album from an entirely different artist. The other issue that is present throughout is Kanye’s writing. Some songs have lines from Kanye that are incredible and showcase his skill with a pen, but a lot more showcase a lack of effort or care in his songwriting. He’s constantly outshined by featured artists, and while I appreciate that he’s giving so many artists a chance to shine, this is after all his album, and his presence on a good amount of the songs is weak or is so minuscule that it might as well not be there at all. All of these issues hold Donda back from being Kanye’s best album yet.
Despite there being a lot of disappointing elements to this project, there is a lot of good to be said about Donda, which I’ll get into right now.
High Points / Praise
Donda does have several flaws, as we just discussed, but the good outweighs the bad, and there are a large number of tracks on this project that blow me away.
Let’s start with the first track, Jail. Featuring Jay Z, this track starts off the album strong, with the guitar that runs throughout the track giving off a sinister and dirty vibe that hooks the listener right away. The vocal effects on Kanye’s pre-chorus and chorus add to the cavernous vibe of the song, and the chilling echo after each line finishes is great. Jail is a great way to start off the album, and one of Kanye’s best intro tracks.
The next highlight in the track list is Off The Grid, and this may be the hardest song of the year. Featuring great guest verses from Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign, this is a very drill inspired track that is an early fan favorite. Fivio Foreign’s verse is one of his best verses ever, and may be the best feature verse on the entire album. Kanye is the star of the show at the end of the day, and his verse that closes out the track is one of his best in a long time. All three artists have a great flow, and it’s impressive how Kanye was able to shine over a drill instrumental so well, especially considering it’s something he hasn’t done before.
The next track that stood out to me was Hurricane, the song that will likely be the most popular from the album. Featuring The Weeknd and Lil Baby, two artists who had the biggest years of their careers in 2020, Kanye picked two great collaborators to include on the track. This track originally leaked back in 2018, but it was very different from what it is now. It’s been great to see how the song has evolved, and this final version is something truly special. Kanye and Lil Baby’s verses are very strong, but the real star here is The Weeknd, who delivers what I believe to be the best feature on the entire project. His appearance on the chorus and the bridge are incredible, and the moments where his vocals are backed by a choir are heavenly. Pairing this with incredible production is a recipe for success, and this is easily one of the best tracks on the album.
Another highlight is Praise God, which features Travis Scott and Baby Keem. Starting off with an audio clip from a speech that Donda West gave, the beat drop that happens as soon as she stops talking is great. Travis’ verse is alright, and Kanye does his thing on the chorus, but Baby Keem is the showstopper here. Although it takes him a while to start spitting bars, once he gets going, he doesn’t stop, and it’s great to hear Keem embracing his potential here. This track isn’t something I’d recommend to someone hearing any of these artists for the first time, but if you are a fan of these 3, you will love this track.
The next track is already one of my favorite Kanye tracks ever. Believe What I Say is quite easily Kanye’s most infectious and catchy song yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this song ends up being a hit on the radio. The only problem is that it feels out of place, as the upbeat tune is a unique track on the album because it’s really the only song that has this sound and energy. Regardless, it’s still a great track. Featuring a great Lauryn Hill sample, this song’s chorus might already be my favorite hook of all time. Buju Banton has an appearance that might seem weird at first, but I love how when he stops talking, it echoes out a bit before the instrumental drops, and the chorus kicks right back in. If you haven’t heard a Kanye track before, this is a great place to start. He’s showcasing his ability to sample, produce, write, and even sing on this track, and it’s wonderful to listen to. I could praise this song for hours.
Moon was my early favorite from the first few listening parties, and while it has fallen off the pedestal I once had it on, it’s still an incredible track. Featuring Don Toliver and Kid Cudi, this song gives an ethereal feeling like no other, and pairing these two with a soft guitar line works wonderfully. Kanye’s appearance is very minimal, with only a few quiet lines in the chorus, but I love how he lets Don and Cudi shine here.
The next highlight is Jesus Lord, a 9-minute epic that features an incredible organ and choir, along with Kanye’s best verse on the entire project. Jay Electronica also joins the party and delivers a great feature. The track is the longest on the album but doesn’t seem to drag on like so many other songs that are actually a lot shorter, which is a miracle. I’m particularly impressed with Kanye on this track because his lyricism is something we haven’t heard from him in years.
The most impressive track on this album to me is Come To Life, an extremely powerful and heartfelt track from Kanye that showcases his talent as a singer, as he sings about wishing he had a different life and that he could have been a better husband to his now ex-wife Kim Kardashian. The lyrics also symbolize how much Kanye loves his children and that he would put them ahead of everything else. This is a somber, beautiful track, with a gorgeous piano instrumental, and it’s already one of my favorite Kanye songs ever, if not my absolute favorite.
The last highlight for this album is its outro, No Child Left Behind. Vory’s feature on the first half of the song is great, and pairing his vocals with another synth-heavy organ instrumental makes the listener feel like they are floating. Kanye also does a great job here, and the track symbolizes that he has made it to heaven, and he has succeeded on earth. The second listening event ended with Kanye being roped up through the open roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, bathed in white light, as this song played, making it clear that this track is the soundtrack to his ascension into heaven.
At the end of the day, Donda is an album that has many highs and lows, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. The album has a theme of redemption, and the album seems to be telling the tale of Kanye redeeming his sins and finally making it to heaven. Although there are several issues I have with the project, I think that Kanye did a great job, especially on the production, and he delivers some of his best songs to date. The album lacks direction, and I would have liked to see a bit more of a focus on the person the album’s named after, West’s late mother Donda, but nonetheless, the project is a great album that honestly would be a great send-off to the career of one of the greatest musicians to ever grace this earth.
Final Score: 8.5/10
- Come To Life
- Believe What I Say
- Jesus Lord
- No Child Left Behind
- Off The Grid
Least Favorite Tracks:
- Ok Ok
- Tell The Vision
- God Breathed
- Remote Control